Tag Archives: learning

Book Review: Two New eBooks for Kids

I’m lucky to be connected with folks who create books in non-traditional, cutting-edge ways. A couple of them have created some pretty neat new ebooks, and I wanted to share these with you.

The Monarch Butterfly: An Interactive Picture Book by Liz Castro

With the plethora of information available about the Monarch butterfly, you’d think there’d be nothing left to say about these fascinating creatures. After spending over an hour with Liz Castro’s new iBook The Monarch Butterfly: An Interactive Picture Book, I’ve decided that this assumption is wrong.

Clearly a labor of love for Castro, this book is fantastic and pushes the boundaries of what an iBook can do. Each page features lovely and detailed full-color photos, some taken very close up. There are informative captions too, but these are hidden behind yellow arrows, so that the reader can pull them out when/if needed, or enjoy the photos alone.

Also included are amazing time-lapse photos presented as videos, showing different parts of the creature’s life cycle, such as a very hungry caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf and the magic of transformation as the butterfly makes its way out of its chrysalis. These are set to classical music and are a perfect example of appropriate use of the format–in this case, to inform and engage.

Definitely worth the price at $4.99, the well-done interactive features of this iBook make it very app-like. Highly recommended for teachers, librarians, parents and anyone wanting to get a closer look at a very interesting insect.

Are We Lost? by Annie Fox, illustrated by Eli Noyes

AreWeLost

Remember Raymond and Sheila? These are brother-and-sister alligators I wrote about when they first appeared just over a year ago in their first book Are You My Friend? by Annie Fox. In this new installment titled Are We Lost?, the two head to the beach for some summer fun. Before long, Raymond is ready for some ice cream, and with his big sister’s approval, he heads off to get it. As you might imagine, what seems so simple never is, and misadventures (and a little bit of chaos) ensue.

I love the tone Fox takes with these books. She seems to understand that what usually seems like no big deal to adults often looms larger than life for kids, and her handling of shyness and other common childhood fears is respectful and empowering.

The illustrations are again done in a colorful, fun-loving style by Eli Noyes, and there is a parent guide at the end to initiate discussions with your own kids.

Available soon for the Kindle, Are We Lost? is a cute, reassuring story for young readers.

(Full disclosure: I received electronic copies of both books for review purposes.)

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Apps I Like: Speak for Yourself

I’m working on a Master’s degree in elementary/special education, and as a project for my Intro to Exceptionalities class, I put together this video presentation about (guess what?) an iPad app. This one is called Speak for Yourself, and it is a language assistance app for non-verbal individuals.

I admit I first heard about this app after reading an article in the Huffington Post about a patent infringement lawsuit a company called PRC slapped on the Speak for Yourself developers. As a result of the ongoing litigation, Apple made the controversial decision to (temporarily?) remove Speak for Yourself from the App Store. Read the HuffPo, TIME and Cult of Mac stories which ensued, and (if you are so inclined, as I was) sign the online petition designed to get Apple to reinstate the app while the matter is played out in court.

Planet Pouch is FREE Today!

Planet Pouch

My little craft book is FREE today!

Today is my birthday, and to celebrate, I decided to make Planet Pouch FREE today. So please: if you are reading this, go straight to Amazon.com and get yourself a copy, post a review and help me spread the word.

Planet Pouch: Simple Juice Pouch Bags Anyone Can Make is a craft how-to book that shows you how to turn those shiny juice pouches into fun bags and totes using a simple sewing machine. Tons of full-color photos and step-by-step instructions make the process easy.

And if you don’t have a Kindle, no problem. You can use the free Kindle Cloud Reader and read this (and thousands of other) ebooks on your computer.

Thank you, and have a wonderful Father’s Day!

Print Books vs. Ebooks

IKEA Library

Dream library, IKEA version

As long as I can remember, I’ve had the dream of one day owning a house big enough to hold a room with a dedicated library of all my books, complete with one of those rolling ladders to allow me to reach the high shelves. This dream personal library has a velvet chaise lounge with a beautiful bronze floor lamp next to it, and a fireplace, bear rug, the whole luxurious nine yards.

I made a startling realization the other day: if we abandon the fantasy of the chaise lounge/floor lamp/fireplace, I’ve already got the dream library, since I have more than 600 books in my Amazon Kindle Cloud Drive and more than 200 iOS apps, half of them book apps.

Dream library, Kindle version

I write this post today because I’ve been hearing the following statement lately, from a variety of people:

“I like ebooks and all, but I prefer the feel of a real book in my hands.”

While I don’t really care if these folks hold on to their dead tree books as long as they like, I think they’ll eventually change their minds. Here’s why.

Ebooks Are Convenient

Between all my gadgets (Android phone, two iOS devices and a Kindle Touch) I have access to hundreds of books (many obtained free, or at discount prices) in my favorite genres. I send cookbooks, craft books and other how-to or multimedia books to the Kindle Reader on my iPad; mysteries, business books, chick lit and other text-based books I want to read soon to the Kindle Touch, and the rest (books I may want to read someday) to the Kindle Cloud Reader, which effectively stores them in the cloud for free. I use the Kindle Reader on my phone when I don’t have access to one of my other reading devices and I’m unexpectedly caught with an extra few minutes in my day. I like having my library accessible anytime, anywhere–I don’t have to be on the velvet chaise lounge after all.

Page turns are managed with a single touch to the right-hand side of the screen, and I can get to any place in the book easily, within a couple of touches.

Ebooks Enhance the Experience of Reading

I love the ability to touch a word I don’t know and get the definition instantly. I love that the Kindle system keeps my place no matter which device I’m using. I also love the way many of the book apps I have for my kids not only hold their interest but encourage literacy and retention through interactive features (one company that does this especially well is Oceanhouse Media with word highlighting and the ability to hear a word aloud when it’s pressed in their storybook apps).

Ebooks Are Lighter and Easier to Maneuver

I’ve been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Because I am a cheapskate, I decided to read the third book (A Clash of Swords) in paperback, since I found it at my local used bookstore and purchased it with store credit. This book, in mass market paperback form, is heavier and bulkier than my Kindle Touch and won’t stay open without my propping it with a heavy object, so it’s difficult to hold with just one hand. I like the fact that I can store all the ebook versions of the others in the series (and hundreds of other books) on a single device that weighs less than the small-format paperback.

Ebooks Are Less Wasteful

Lately when I hold a print book, especially a hardcover, I’m hit with the overwhelming feeling of wastefulness. There’s something pretty unpleasant about the fact that the book I hold in my hands is a real, tangible slice of what used to be a living thing, processed and assembled for the sole purpose of my entertainment or learning. I offset this as much as I can by taking physical books I don’t want anymore to my local used bookstore, then offering the ones they don’t want on PaperbackSwap.com, but the fact is: printed books use up resources (paper, ink, glue and more) that no longer need to be expended for the same entertainment or educational value.

Ebooks Can be Updated Much Faster, and at Less Cost

Non-fiction books in print form eventually become outdated. Information changes and evolves as humans gain more knowledge about a topic, or when materials or ways of doing things are improved. But let’s be honest: most non-fiction print books will be truly useful for only a fraction of their lives. After that, the next edition replaces it–at significant cost. Textbook publishers have profited from this with great success for many years–at the expense of both teachers and students.

It’s time for ebooks to become the preferred way to distribute educational materials and other non-fiction content, which can be updated quickly and redistributed almost instantly, to all users of the material, with no expending of the tangible resources needed to print a new edition.

However, Ebooks Aren’t Perfect

For me, the five reasons above are pretty compelling for the shift to digital. But there are some things about ebooks I don’t like as well. These shortcomings aren’t enough to send me back to paper, but they are worth mentioning:

  • The Kindle ‘Farthest Page Read’ Feature Needs a Reset Button. The ability of Amazon’s Kindle devices to keep my place is great, but occasionally I accidentally make my way to a later page that doesn’t actually reflect where I am in the book. When this happens, keeping my place manually becomes a pain in the neck. I’d love to see a way to reset this, but I imagine it won’t happen, since the addition of this feature would make it much easier for spouses and other family members to share books on the same family of devices. But since I let my kids and spouse share my print books, I’d sort of like to share my ebooks with them too, in a hassle-free way. Come on, Amazon!
  • Prices of Ebooks from the Big Publishers are Too Expensive. Books coming from the big 6 publishers are priced according to their artificial and rapidly-crumbling world of print scarcity and their hardback-to-trade-paperback-to-mass-market-paperback release schedule. This is archaic and needs to change. Why should the ebook version of a title ever cost more than the mass market paperback would? It all comes down to greed, and an over-reliance of the old way of doing things. Eventually these outdated practices will put many of these publishers and retailers (remember Borders?) out of business.
  • Ebook Lending Needs to Be Improved. It’s nice that I can lend one of my Kindle books to someone else (if the publisher allows it), but I can only do it once. After that, the book can’t be lent again. I don’t mind the restrictions of one-person-at-a-time and my own inaccessibility during the lending period (since these are in force for my print books too) but let’s remove the artificial restriction of once only, and let me lend a book I’m finished with over and over if I choose.
  • Ebook Devices Aren’t Durable or Affordable Enough. When iOS devices and other ebook readers are able to withstand normal wear and tear by school-aged children (i.e. being dropped on the floor) and are cheaper than $50, we will see a true revolution. Until then, they aren’t practical enough to replace most of the printed books in my house, which are now children’s books. Plus an entire segment of the population (the lower middle classes and below) have little to no access yet.

So, what I’m saying is: in spite of the drawbacks, ebooks have become just as ‘real’ to me as print books are. I love them both, but I’m not buying many print books anymore. And eventually (probably within the next five years or so) most of the rest of you will be saying the same thing.

Apps I Like: My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

I have to come clean here. As a parent of two young girls, I am often on the lookout for stories that provide strong female characters and feature empowering, not stereotypical situations. Therefore I frown on, but do not forbid, traditional pink/princess/fluffy stuff like Barbie, the Disney princesses and (gulp) My Little Pony. However, I know both my girls love My Little Pony, and I thought the new app from Ruckus Media deserved a chance at my house. Could it take advantage of the format and provide an experience beyond simple entertainment?

My Little Pony by Ruckus Media

My Little Pony - Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day by Ruckus Media

The app is centered around a My Little Pony story called Twilight Sparkle: Teacher for a Day which I suspect comes from the television show. The story is straightforward enough, and features Twilight Sparkle’s adventure after she is asked by Princess Celestia to share a history lesson with the Cheerilee students about Equestria.

My Little Pony story

The story features all the ponies your child knows from the show and the toy figures.

Word highlighting is included when the ‘Read to Me’ option is selected on the main screen. I think this is a must-have feature for a storybook app and I’m glad to see it here.

There are also little short videos that pop up between pages here and there that follow the story, as well as little bits of hot spot animation that are fun the first few run-throughs but don’t add a whole lot to the experience.

Sprinkled throughout the story are optional activities like mazes and spot-the-difference panels. Completing these correctly wins the reader words, which can be used to fill in the blanks in Twilight Sparkle’s diary. Best of all, there are several of the randomly-generated activities, so kids don’t get bored when going back to try to earn all the words.

My Little Pony maze

Finishing the activities earns you words, which you use later on to complete several pages of Twilight Sparkle's diary.

The diary is my favorite feature of this app, because it could be used to help kids hone reading comprehension skills. The reader uses the words collected along the way to fill in the blanks in the diary. Tapping on a single word reads it to you, and once you’ve placed all the words in their proper spots you have the option to read the entire diary.

My Little Pony diary

Use the words earned by doing the activities to complete Twilight Sparkle's diary.

Of course, you can place any word in any blank you wish–which provides a fun Mad Libs-style wacky reading, if you desire. I admit I felt a little rebellious doing this!

The main theme of the story (friendship and working together leads to great things) is hard to miss, but I liked the secondary theme even better (it’s OK if you’re not great at everything–ask a friend to help you out). And for my youngest daughter who loves all things girly, I’m happy anytime she chooses to interact with an app that aids literacy, even if pink princess pony parties are involved.

Bottom Line: Great production values and familiar characters add up to a solid, if unsurprising, app experience. If your kids like My Little Pony, they will love this app. Reasonably priced in the App Store at $3.99, and the app is universal (designed for both the iPhone and iPad).

(Full disclosure: I received  a free copy of this app for review purposes.)

T-Shirts from Goodie World!

goodie world tees

The girls and I showing off our new shirts from Goodie World!

I’ve been wanting to show off these cool new t-shirts I won in a Twitter giveaway a while back, but vacation and a few other diversions kept getting in the way.

Do you guys know about Goodie World? This is a team of talented developers who are creating gorgeous learning apps for kids. Goodie Words, their first release, is a nifty little app that explains some common, but perhaps intangible or otherwise hard-to-explain, concepts/words for preschool kids.

I downloaded and tried out the free version of Goodie Words and loved it. First-class artwork and engaging interactivity make for a very endearing, useful and fun app, designed especially for the iPad.

According to their website, Goodie Shapes and Goodie Letters are in development right now–can’t wait to see what they’ve got in store for us. Thanks, guys,  for the awesome shirts (and cool apps)!

Interview with Gary James, Creator of a4cwsn.com

Do you remember the videos shown during the iPad2 launch? While I was mesmerized by the fun factor of the device, I was really touched by the way the iPad is being used to help kids with autism. It’s amazing to me that the tablet is helping these kids develop skills and gain independence.

When I connected with Gary James, founder and creator of the Apps for Children with Special Needs site, I was truly impressed with his effort to build a resource for parents and caregivers of special needs kids. He agreed to an interview, which I’m delighted to share with you today.

Apps for Children with Special Needs

the a4cwsn home page

1. Although it’s getting a lot of exposure now, the idea that mobile apps could help kids with autism and other special needs probably wasn’t as evident a year ago when the iPad was introduced. How did you discover that apps for kids could benefit these children?

A. Well, I have always been interested in electronics, computers, video games, big TVs–just like every other guy out there, but the real wake up was when my son was diagnosed with special needs. Ever since that day, I have always looked for ways to help him and also teach myself how to help others. So I have had a Mac for 10 years now and when the iPad came out, I was ready to go, knowing that this could be an amazing new way for our children to interact with a product that can help them develop mentally. Touch was the key.

2. The Apps for Children with Special Needs site (a4cwsn.com) seems like a godsend for all parents, not just those adults who support special needs kids. The app index of videos alone is extremely valuable. Did you have certain ideas in mind when you created the site, or did it evolve over time?

A. I created the site to help families like mine find apps that were useful for certain things, and at the same time show them how the apps worked so they would not waste their money if it was not what they needed. The site is evolving very, very fast. I am in the process of putting together categories unique to special needs children that will make it possible to search by therapy categories also. So if someone needs help with speech or AAC, for example, they will be able to see all the apps in those categories from 99¢ up to $350 on video before spending any money.

3. I love the JaMeos: video previews of storybook apps that can be digested in Just a Minute. With no commentary or voice over review, it’s just a brief walk-through of the beginning of a storybook app. What gave you the idea for this approach?

A. I came up with this idea after reading a story on my iPad by a company in England called Story Mouse. Their apps took me back to my childhood, when I had three TV channels and it was all about imagination and great storytelling. I think if people want to buy a book, it should start out with a good story, much like when you want to see a movie, you watch the trailers first and then decide what to do. My brother actually came up with the name as our last name is James and the clips are like cameos, thus Jameos and the abbreviation JAM worked well for Just a Minute.

4. I’d imagine that the community of parents and caregivers of special needs kids would be pretty choosy about the resources they use. What sort of feedback have you received on the site and on the tools you’ve provided?

A. I get amazing amounts of feedback from all over the world, the video podcast I provide to iTunes under Special Needs is ranked in the top 5 podcasts in over 40 countries. So I get ideas of what is missing, what people like and don’t like, apps I should look at and not look at, you name it and I hear it. I must say that most of the feedback about the site is very positive, parents telling me how much time and money I have saved them. This is why I started it in the first place.

5. I notice you’re also active on Facebook and Twitter. Have you found that social media makes it easier for people in the special needs community to connect with needed resources, and each other?

A. Twitter is a great way to get a message out to millions of people, but what I have found is that they really have to be interested in what you are saying and doing. The main issue with Twitter seems to be that people just want to have large numbers following them and don’t really care what or when they say things. Facebook, on the other hand, is much more personal. Pictures and information about interests similar to yours seem to bring together communities of great people. We recently held a Facebook party to celebrate some great developers and gave away over 300 amazing apps to people who otherwise may not have had the opportunity, including an app worth $500 and another one worth $200. What happened with the numbers was amazing, the amount of times my posts were read came to something like 600,000 in a 24 hour period. Now that is good marketing!

6. As a writer/illustrator myself, I have a big need to enrich the lives of others. Knowing that there is a possibility that special needs kids could benefit through one of my stories is extremely gratifying. What caused you to become involved with the special needs community–and have you found your work on the a4cwsn site gratifying as well?

A. I love what I do and I hope others do also. I got involved because of my children. #6 is due any day now and my other five are the reason I get up every morning. My eldest is 18 and now has special needs. Benjamin who just turned 6 is also on the spectrum so I will never stop, I will never give up and I will do all I can to help anyone who needs it.

* * * * * * * *

Make sure you both bookmark the Apps for Children with Special Needs site (a4cwsn.com) and Like them on Facebook. I understand Gary is gearing up for another app giveaway extravaganza soon! Thanks to Gary for his thoughtful responses.